Friday, May 08, 2009

Ulster-Scots Music? The Fiddle - "The Devil's Box"


I can vividly remember when I was about 18, being publicly lambasted one Sunday morning by an older man in the gospel hall I grew up in, as he ministered after the breaking of bread. Word had clearly reached him that I was committing the heinous act of playing the guitar in public at another ("looser") hall in Newtownards from time to time. He didn't mention me by name, but it was clear as crystal to everyone at the morning meeting just who he was referring to in his rant about "hippies with banjos in the meetings". (Just to reassure you, I had short hair, and it was a guitar, not a banjo...)

This is nothing new. There's a strain of transatlantic Scots/Ulster-Scots/Scotch-Irish culture which spurns musical instruments, especially those which are perceived to be "worldly". It's probably connected to the mid 1800s religious revivals that swept through Scotland, Ulster and America, but it predates those too.

An excellent book on the subject is "The Devil's Box - Masters of Southern Fiddling" by the late Charles Wolfe. Published in 1997, it charts the rise of the fiddle as a popular instrument in the USA, and the early recordings which turned country fiddlers into superstars of their time:

"...they called the instrument "The Devil's Box" because some thought it was sinful to play one. Sometimes in recent years, people would be tearing down old log cabins to get at the logs and they would find hidden in the wall an old beat-up fiddle. At first they puzzled about this, but then people explained that the man who lived there was once a fine old-time fiddler, but that in later years he had gotten religion. In his zeal, he became convinced that he must turn his back on his old life, and especially the devil's instrument, the fiddle... many newly saved fiddlers took their instruments and smashed them against the wall. But others, unable to part with the heirlooms they had devoted much of their lives to, quietly dropped them behind the walls of their cabins and kept quiet, hoping perhaps that some day in the future, in a kinder and more tolerant age, someone would find them and let them be heard again..."

It has often been observed that Ulster Protestants do not have the same type, or same quantity, of traditional folk music as Irish Catholics do. This is then extrapolated to an extreme position of "Prods have no culture". [see Edna Longley, "Ulster Protestants and the Question of Culture", in "Last Before America - Irish and American Writing", 2001 ] There is of course a certain amount of what might be crudely termed Ulster Protestant (non-religious or non-Orange) folk music, but not that much of it has been collected, published or "packaged". Yet.

My own view is that most of the musical energies of the Protestant community in Ulster (particularly in the late 1800s and early 1900s around the religious revivals of 1859, Moody/Sankey and WP Nicholson, and the three Home Rule crises) generally went in two directions - either into religious music or the marching bands. As more research goes on, it is clear that many of the major hymnwriters of the late 1800s had Ulster roots. Here's just one example - Robert Lowry, whose parents emigrated to the USA from Killyleagh in County Down. To compare gospel music with classical for a moment, this is akin to finding that Beethoven was an Ulster-Scot.

Ach, but there you go again Thompson, this is all just either religious or political. Well, as Bill C. Malone observed in this great book, even in the USA there was a deep anti-religious bias amongst those who had set themselves up as the "experts" on musical traditions in the early 20th century. As the song collectors scoured the mountains and rural Scotch-Irish communities looking for untapped reservoirs of music there were"...scores of items that came from the gospel tradition... this music was generally ignored by the apostles of high culture...". It is deeply revealing when Malone goes on to say that "hillbilly music did not fit the idealized version of folk music promoted by the collectors and their allies... but it did conform marvellously to the reality of plain folk-life..." (p. 18)

There is a big job of work to be done in analysing the musical output and movements within the Ulster Protestant community over the last 150 years. Our music might not wear an aran sweater and play in a themed pub among Guinness and oysters. Our traditional indoor venues are church, fireside or Orange hall, among tea and egg & onion sandwiches; our outdoor venues are the public road or the Field (and the tea and egg and onion sandwiches go there too).

But maybe Prods have no culture, eh?


To finish back with fiddlers - one of the earliest recorded American players was Fiddlin' John Carson, who played the fiddle that his grandfather had brought with him when he emigrated from Ireland/Ulster in 1780. And three others were Alec "Eck" Robertson, Henry Gilliland and "Uncle" Jimmy Thompson. One of the earliest American fiddle recordings was of a tune called "Glory in the Meeting House" (see video below) - with names like these, it's fair to expect that there's a deep Ulster-Scots dimension to all of this.



Hickory said...

Hi there. I just discovered your blog and am enjoying it. My Greatgrandfather David Marshall left Limavady in 1871 and I have been exploring where he came from. I think I have part of an answer to your question on your blog today. The Scots-Irish occupied the Western part of the coastal states during early immigrations.
Keep up the good work:
Peter in Seattle

Mark Thompson said...

Thanks for your comment - I've been to that part of western South Carolina, and felt very much at home. Is there much Scotch-Irish awareness in Washington State? I've never been there, but lots of people have recommended Seattle and Vancouver!

Glad you enjoy the blog - it always amazes me just who's reading it!